Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Book Review: JO JOE

Title: Jo Joe
Author: Sally Wiener Grotta
Publisher: Pixel Hall Press
Pages: 314

Jo Joe is about the nature of memory, and about how our experiences and prejudices inevitably shape our beliefs.

The experience of Judith Ormand, the heroine of Jo Joe by Sally Wiener Grotta, reminded me of a quote by Nelson Mandela. “There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.”

Judith’s return to Black Bear, Pennsylvania, the fictional and bigoted small town that she fled 17 years ago as a 17-year-old, is exactly that kind of a journey of self-discovery. A young woman of mixed ethnicity and the last surviving member of her family, Judith, nicknamed Jo, revisits the town her Gramma made her promise she would never return to.

Her Gramma’s death forces her to break that promise, and she returns for a week, determined to look through her maternal grandparents’ effects, retain and dispose of them as required and sell the house before bidding goodbye to Black Bear forever. The act of sorting through their material possessions dredges up long repressed and forgotten memories that Jo would rather not think about. Reviving those memories, she is forced to confront the demons that have stalked her since the day she came to stay in Black Bear after the death of her mother and the remarriage of her father.

Turned away and not fully welcome anywhere, Jo does not retain a sense of belonging towards any place in the world. The residents of Black Bear have always treated Jo with disdain and resentment. Her dark skin, flat nose and kinky hair set her apart from the all-white town. Her Jewishness is at odds with their Christianity. The question is, will Black Bear be any more accepting of her today than it was back then?

As a seventh grader, Jo experienced hate and bigotry at the hands of her school mates. Her only friend was Joe Anderson, who had coined the name Jo out of her initials, creating a name that bound them together. Joe stands up against the bullying she faces at school, fighting against the bigots and haters. And yet, one day, he suddenly turned against her, almost overnight, becoming one of the haters. That was also the dark night on which she is raped by Wayne, Joe’s older brother.

Back in Black Bear, Jo learns that in her will, Gramma left the hunting lodge and $100000 to Joe. Jo contests the will, believing that Gramma would never have included Joe in her will, and that he has deceived her into doing so. After all, Gramma distrusted Joe, believing that he would turn out to be white trash like his father and mother were.

The plot is not linear, but largely fragmented, as is to be expected considering that most of the significant people in Jo’s life are long gone, and must be re-constructed for us through memories, journal entries and other devices. Jo slips effortlessly between the past and the present.

I loved the characters of Grampa and Gramma as seen through Jo’s memories. The warmth of her relationships with her grandparents touches our hearts. They are warm and loving, but they cannot always protect her from hate.

Sally’s descriptions are the hallmark of this story. They make it come alive, bit by bit, layer by layer, using sounds and smells, and making us experience this fictional town of Grotta’s imagination. One gets an impression of every word picked purposefully.

Every word is pure imagery, painting a picture of the locale as seen through Jo’s eyes. Whether she is describing Black Bear of whether she lets us see Africa through Jo’s eyes, we feel enriched by the lush descriptions. These are not descriptions you’ll want to skip, so beautifully are they intertwined with the rest of the story.

To Grotta’s credit, Jo does not always come out squeaky clean. She is so consumed by hate and anger that she is surprised to see good in people. Even as she despises the others for their bigotry, she carries her own prejudices with her. She is surprised to learn that Maybeth Peters, the bitchy, busty head cheerleader and prom queen who used sex to get ahead and tyrannized high school, is now a hardworking single mother. And that her son is an upstanding young man who gets straight As in every subject.

In the end, it isn’t the characters alone who retain misconceptions based on prejudices. We end up making our own assumptions about the kind of people that Grampa and Gramma, Mom and Papa, and Joe were. Making Jo’s first person present tense account our own, we, as readers, accept her prejudices as our own. Through Jo, Grotta shows how our memories can become our ‘personal mythology,’ the prism through which we view the world, the philosophy that we forge for ourselves.

After all, we all live our lives based on the prejudices we adopt. And our experiences and memories influence our beliefs and vice versa. Of course, prejudices are based on experience and truth sometimes, and it is natural to have them. But we err in making them the guiding lights of our lives.

I learned so much about Judaism, especially its mourning tradition and the philosophy behind it.

Judith talks about the nature of faith, how it needs mass “reaction and interaction to make it real for us,” and yet how “when it isn’t your faith, how like primitive incantations it sounds.

The cover is eye-catching, with its half black and half white divisions and a jagged blood-red vertical demarcation between the two, and Jo written in white and Joe in black.

I only wish there were a happy ending written for Jo and Joe. But of course, forgiveness brings along its own brand of happiness. In the end, Black Bear both brings them together and tears them apart.

(I read a Kindle version of this book on NetGalley.)

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